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Community Over Cocktails 

A look at Tucson's groundbreaking gay bars—and the people trying to preserve their histories

It's 1 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, and Tom Novakowski is doing what he's done almost every day for the past 40 years—tending bar. More specifically, he's tending a gay bar.

Away from the glare of the summer sun, IBT's on Fourth Avenue offers a dark, cool respite. Novakowski stands behind the club's bar with a cup of coffee in one hand, occasionally putting it down to pour a drink for a daytime patron, or to fold bar towels in preparation for the evening rush.

At the height of Tucson's gay-bar era—the late-1970s into the mid-'80s—there were about a dozen bars, and Novakowski recalls most of their names: the Graduate, the Venture, Sir James, Hair Tiz, the Joshua Tree/Backdoor, the Stonewall Eagle, Michael's, the Fineline, Rita's, Colette's, Venture, Lucky Pierre's and IBT's.

Today's gay-bar scene includes about a half-dozen places: IBT's, as well as Woody's, New Moon, Brodie's Tavern, Venture-N, and Colors.

June Thomas, author of The Gay Bar: Its Riotous Past and Uncertain Future, wrote a six-part series on the history and the future of the gay bar for Slate.com last year.

"In 2007, Entrepreneur Magazine put gay bars on its list of businesses facing extinction, along with record stores and pay phones. And it's not just that gays are hanging out in straight bars; some are eschewing bars altogether and finding partners online or via location-based smart-phone apps like Grindr, Qrushr and Scruff," Thomas wrote. "Between 2005 and 2011, the number of gay and lesbian bars and clubs in gay-travel-guide publisher Damron's database decreased by 12.5 percent, from 1,605 to 1,405. Could the double whammy of mainstreaming and technology mean that gay bars are doomed?"

Despite her research, however, Thomas decided that the gay bar is not doomed. "As long as enough people keep feeling the need for queer communion, America's gay bars will endure. There may be fewer of them, and we may see more folks we think of as 'straight' in the crowd, but I believe gay people will always gather to drink and dance under their rainbow flags."

Sitting across from Novakowski at IBT's is Ernie Freuler, who hosts the public-access show OutWest. He's also a volunteer with the Tucson Gay Historical Society and the Tucson Gay Museum, an online museum (www.tucsongaymuseum.org) with an archive of newspapers, brochures, fliers and mementos collected by members of the gay community.

Leaving IBT's with Freuler, we make the same assessment as Thomas: For young gays and lesbians, that first gay-bar experience is still important.

"If gay people want to go somewhere they can be themselves, this is it. It's great that we feel more comfortable in straight bars, but no matter what, it's not the same," Freuler says.

That brings us to the Graduate, an establishment that once stood at 23 W. University Blvd.

Novakowski tended bar there for 10 years, from 1979 to 1989, and returned in 1999 when the owners decided to get out of the business and wanted someone familiar to help run the bar during its last months.

"It really was a neighborhood bar, and by that, I mean you couldn't even tell it was there," Novakowski says.

Of all the bars he's worked at or patronized, Novakowski says the Graduate was his favorite, because of the varied clientele.

Inside the bar was what Novakowski calls the Million Dollar Corner.

"The first eight to nine bar stools were filled with the same people every day, who worked as attorneys and stockbrokers," Novakowski says. "On the other side is where a group of Mexicans hung out. They drank together and talked together. It's the gay version of the Buffet."

Places like the Graduate allowed gays and lesbians to gather in an atmosphere free of fear or judgment. Novakowski says he and his friends didn't have to worry when they went out. "It's where we went to be completely ourselves."

Freuler is the person who introduced me to Novakowski, with whom he worked as a bartender at IBT's. Freuler and his late partner, Bert Hoop, also worked at other gay bars in Tucson, including the Graduate.

"I've known Tom since I've been in Tucson when I moved here in '84 with my partner, Bert," Freuler says. "Bert and I were into the leather scene, and we were asked to do something at IBT's, because we knew it could draw people in. It did well."

Back in the 1940s and '50s, he says, gay bars were small establishments that allowed people to live separate lives by necessity. But as challenges grew—including police raids and the arrival of HIV/AIDS—gay bars became de facto community centers.

"To give you an idea of the time we lived in, when AIDS first hit, Bert and I started getting calls from people with information about someone who was very sick and got kicked out of his apartment complex," Freuler says. "There was no legal service. You had to go out and find a landlord who was compassionate and didn't care. We didn't have a lot of resources, and we learned how to take care of each other."

Freuler recalls a person calling him when he was working at IBT's to let him know that Freuler's house was on fire. Freuler insisted the caller was joking, so the caller told Freuler to go outside and look toward his house. Freuler did—and saw the smoke.

That night, IBT's had a drag show on its schedule, but everyone knew that Freuler and his partner had lost everything in the fire.

"They decided right then to make the show into a fundraiser for us," Freuler says. "To me, it was an example of how everyone in the community comes together to take care of each other, and it was all from a bar."

In the mid-1970s, when patrons of Tucson's gay bars saw uniformed police officers standing in bar parking lots and doorways, the presence wasn't at first well-received.

The history of police gay-bar raids was part of the issue; after all, this was less than a decade after New York City's Stonewall riots, in June 1969, when police came to the Stonewall Inn with clubs—only to be greeted by a crowd of gay youths, transvestites, drag queens and others who decided they weren't going to take it anymore.

That was the beginning of a gay civil rights movement that hasn't stopped since—a movement that started in a gay bar and grew up in gay bars across the country.

In Tucson, 1976 could be considered the year that the gay community in Tucson began to be transformed. It was the year the Tucson Observer began publication. The gay community newspaper would go through different incarnations, sometimes coming out of Phoenix and then returning to Tucson.

It was also the year Richard Heakin was beaten to death by four teenagers outside of the Stonewall, a gay bar at First Avenue and Fort Lowell Road named for the famous New York tavern.

Within a year of the 21-year-old Nebraska man's brutal death, changes occurred in anti-discrimination laws that gave gays and lesbians more protection. And Heakin's death brought gays and lesbians together like never before.

Back then, there was a volunteer-run gay hotline, but there was no community center like Wingspan, and no pride festival. As in many towns with sizable gay communities, gay bars were the places people came together to celebrate, to mourn or to plan.

And as for those cops at the bars: In the September 1976 issue of the Observer, an editorial stated that the police were there to offer protection and reassurance, and to show that times were changing.

"At last, liaison between Tucson Police Department and the Gay Community is a reality. Under the guidance of Lt. Fuller, Officers Ken Magoch and Mark Thomas have been assigned to the Gay establishments. They will be patrolling the parking lots, checking people loitering around outside, and most important introducing themselves," the editorial read. "In a brief interview, Ken and Mark stated they were available for questions and wanted the Gay community to know that reporting any problems to them will be handled discreetly. When you see these two uniformed men in the bars, try to get acquainted, and you will find out that they are really great guys."

Those first issues of the Observer, and issues of other gay community publications from the past 36 years, are archived on the Tucson Gay Museum website, along with histories of places like the Graduate.

Freuler says the history of the gay bar has to be protected and celebrated, even though there aren't as many gay bars around today, and even though many establishments once considered straight-only now welcome members of the LGBT community.

"But if you are gay, you have to help support your own," Novakowski says. "I understand that gays can now go to straight bars and have a great time. But I don't think you can truly be yourself, not like you can be at a gay bar."

When Colette Barajas opened her bar in 1983, straight men would come in and make a beeline for the phones.

"'Hey, I scored,' a guy would say on the phone. 'There are only women,'" Barajas recalls, laughing about the men who did not realize that the women surrounding them probably weren't interested.

She says the straight men probably did not see the tag line under the name of her bar, Colette's. She holds up a copy of the logo, and with her index finger, points out this sentence: "A women's bar where all are welcome." She also put up a sign near the entrance—as did most Tucson gay bars at the time—letting people know they were in a gay bar, and that if that fact made them uncomfortable, they should leave.

Barajas now runs a real estate business just down the street from IBT's. It's been more than 20 years since she ran a bar; she closed Colette's in 1991. Still, when she is out on the town—perhaps having brunch with her wife at Colors—people come up to her and tell her she should reopen Colette's.

"The times are different. The gay bar isn't as important as it used to be," she says. "But I have so many wonderful stories. ... People will tell me we were the location of their first kiss. I happened to be in the right place at the right time."

People who come up to Barajas to share memories also say they miss seeing her father, Sam, who worked at the door of the bar and helped her with maintenance. Everyone called him Pops.

Gay bars have long been a part of Barajas' life. When she was a youngster, her mother owned a gay bar in Chicago with another straight woman who was considered a strong advocate for gay rights. And when her dad moved to Tucson, he became part of the gay community in his own way.

"He even Jell-O-wrestled," Barajas says, smiling broadly and referring to the annual Reno Gannon Memorial Jell-O Wrestling fundraiser for the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation.

In 1985, Barajas went into treatment and closed the first Colette's, which was on First Avenue. A year later, she reopened the bar at 3143 E. Speedway Blvd., where the Red Garter now stands.

Barajas says she had a large marquee placed in front of the bar that she used to announce patrons' anniversaries.

"We also had real dressing rooms with real lights. The drag queens loved it," she says.

Barajas remembers the bar hosting fundraisers for the first Tucson Pride festivals, when they were held at Himmel Park. She also started doing more fundraisers for AIDS projects.

"Many in the lesbian community came together to help and care for gay men," she notes.

When Barajas stopped drinking alcohol, she realized she had a large number of male patrons who were learning that they were HIV-positive.

"These guys didn't want to just sit and stay home. We needed to provide an alternative to alcoholic beverages," she says. "I was sober, and these guys couldn't drink alcohol with their meds. We started making sure we had nonalcoholic drinks and healthier alternatives (like juices).

"I look back at those years and feel like we were still invisible at times. I think that was part of the motivation of moving to Speedway and getting the marquee: We were not going to be invisible anymore."

It's not a good idea to call Candi Trowbridge a fag hag.

"That happened. But I had to explain to (people) exactly what they were saying: If they called me a fag hag, that meant that I was someone who wanted to be able to change a gay guy. That wasn't true. I was just interested in partying, and these guys ended up being very important in my life," Trowbridge says.

She considers the period of time in the 1980s when she hung out at gay bars to be the best time of her life. She admits that she didn't have many friends at work—but at area gay bars, particularly her favorites, Jekyll and Hyde's and the Graduate, everyone said hello when Trowbridge walked in.

"That didn't happen at work," she says.

Trowbridge says she started dating a man who later told her he was gay. "I said, 'So?' Later, he became a drag queen known as Lady Isis. Later on, I even moved in with him and a few other drag queens. Didn't make my mother so happy, but I didn't care."

It was during that time that Trowbridge met Freuler and became what members of the Tucson Desert Leathermen called the "token woman." The leather club, which hosted other leather groups from around the world, did a lot of socializing beyond dungeons. The Leathermen needed some help for the social events and asked Trowbridge if she was interested.

"At first, I was a little concerned," she says. "Back then, there were no women in the leather scene, and they didn't want women. They were doing a mystery run to Bisbee, and there was a guy in my apartment building who was a pledge (invited to join the Leathermen), and he needed a ride back to Tucson. That's why they invited me. I said yes, and I realized they were pretty nice."

One night, the Leathermen took a vote and decided to make Trowbridge a full member. After the vote, they presented her with a leather vest and her own version of the bola ties all members wore. The guys' ties were blue, and Trowbridge's was pink. She also had a name tag—Token Woman.

When asked why the Tucson group decided to bring a woman into the membership, Freuler says it was an easy decision: It felt like Trowbridge was "a mother to us all. She had a talent that we appreciated."

Trowbridge says she never felt uncomfortable with the members. She would hand out condoms and lube, and help the guys put together holiday gift bags for local AIDS patients. "I got involved because they treated me with respect. No one laughed at me. I never felt disrespected and always felt like my ideas were taken seriously."

Trowbridge came up with an idea that helped put the Leathermen on the map: her recipe for a cocktail they named Cactus Cum. Trowbridge tended bar at the Graduate from time to time, and she came up with the drink that groups from other leather clubs across the country learned to love. She isn't sure if the drink was popular because of the name, or because people genuinely liked the combination of tequila, sweet and sour, triple sec, 7-Up, and lime sherbet—all mixed together in a large punch bowl.

"I was talking to my neighbor recently, and we both agreed that the '80s were so good. I know the fashion wasn't so great, but for me, I miss that time," Trowbridge says. "Gay people felt like they were family in the gay bars, but I did, too. We helped each other."

Trowbridge donated her leather vest to the Tucson Gay Museum, along with her bola tie.

Freuler says seeing those collections and photos make their way to the museum makes him feel nostalgic.

"I see my partner who passed away in 2005. It's a happy sad, because I get a chance to remember all of those good times. He's the one who taught me about being part of this community. Through the museum, our lives at those bars get to be preserved forever," Freuler says. "Sometimes, I used to worry that younger people wouldn't understand what we did before they arrived—how much we sacrificed, or what Stonewall was about.

Now? "I don't worry about that as much," Freuler says.

More by Mari Herreras

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